Sometimes when I’m teaching a poetry class, or a lyric essay class, I pass around notecards with salient lines from writers my students may not have encountered before. The idea is for students to find the invitation in a single line—to hear the call in it and write, honestly and immediately, in response.
Here are seven stunning and inviting lines from Muriel Leung’s new collection, Imagine Us, the Swarm:
THIS IS TO LIVE SEVERAL LIVES
THE PLURAL CIRCUITS OF TELL
A CAREFUL LIST OF ALL MY FAILURES
LIFE OF A DROWNING
DEAR INTIMACY OF [THEORY]
I MARVEL AT THE NOISES A MORE PERFECT VENGEANCE MAKES
WHEN I IMAGINE ALL THE POSSIBILITIES OF THE SWARM
I place them before you now for your own free-write. Choose one. Choose all. If the lines elicit feelings, images, questions, hungers, sensory engagement of any kind, it’s by design.
These lines are the titles of the seven sections of Muriel Leung’s collection Imagine Us, the Swarm. Is each section a long poem, part of a sequence of seven linked (and stand-alone) poems that together comprise the title “swarm”? Yes. Is each section a lyric essay, part of a sequence of seven linked (and stand-alone) essays that together comprise the title “swarm”? Yes. Leung is not in the business of quibbling about genre nor in the habit of swimming too close to the genre wall. This book is a testament to plunges. This book is about sinking and rising, as most elegies are—sinking and rising again.
Has this ever happened to you? “I set out to write a book about [ ] but it was about [ ] instead.” Familiar, yes? The experience we recognize, but the sentiment expressed—exposed—on the page feels new. So often the first rule about writing a book is you don’t talk about writing a book, especially in the book. “To write a book is to write into the future and I am not ready.” Imagine writing this line when the book is still a prospect, an in-progress, a might-come-to-pass but also might-not. Imagine telling the reader what we are not ready for. (Readers, by contrast, are always ready, as suggested by the root of their name.)
For my part, I appreciate a speaker who will let me in on things.
“How do you write a history that is both [yours] and [not yours] but an extension of an improbable future?”
Sometimes Leung uses brackets around empty/open space, and sometimes Leung uses brackets around words. I was taught in school that we sometimes use brackets to separate words or figures from the larger context of the sentence in which they appear. [Brackets as a means of isolation.] I was also taught in school that we sometimes use brackets to substitute our own words for words used by the author. [Brackets as a means of replacement.]
When Leung’s speaker introduces the death of her father, she writes, “After he died, [ ] was all that was left.” Elegies put me in mind of isolation—the father separated by his death from the larger context of the living. Elegies also put me in mind of replacement—how the father now appears as something else [a ghost?], replaced by a word, a memory, a space. How all replacements remind us of what is ultimately irreplaceable as suggested by lines such as these:
“For a while not saying [ ] because it was bad form”
“My father, inside a cylinder of white smoke, was an efforted alive / […] And the rest of us—we carried him; we were the tomb.”
Leung’s approach to writing reminds me of projective verse, of Charles Olson’s 1948 description of the poem as “a field of action.” Here is a writer who composes by field, who enlarges the reader’s experience of the page as poem/page as essay. I think of the way people talk about screening a film. The screen is integral to the cinematic experience. In Leung’s work, the page is comparably integral to the poem.
In Section 1, in addition to brackets, Leung also introduces patterns of perforated lines of varying lengths. They are actually strings of dots, not dashes, though they resemble at a glance the lines used to teach printing, and then cursive, in elementary school. Lower-case letters touched the perforation line; capital letters extended past it to the next solid line.
Of course there are no solid lines in Imagine Us, the Swarm. That would be counterintuitive to a collection so attuned to its own making. What is perforated is made to be torn more easily. Life perforates in death, and grief extends that perforation to the living who continue to mourn. Watch how Leung invokes this perforation visually, spatially, and semantically in one singular iteration:
…..of itself the…
they were ever….
….spoken but I….
suppose this is……
We experience the holes as if we have punched them and as if they have been punched through us.
Composition by field persists throughout this collection, these long/wide pages Leung attends to as a screen. Leung makes me conscious of the entire page as the poem/essay, not its “border,” and in that process, she changes the way I read and experience meaning. She makes a watcher of text, of space. She positions me inside her book.
In Section 2, the brackets continue to appear, but the format shifts to an emphasis on footnotes. Now there is a supra-text and a sub-text. I was taught in school that the sub-text was something we could infer from close reading of the visible text. By its very nature, the subtext was not visible but rather obscured, implicit.
Watch how Leung places the text and sub-text paratactic on the page, each the lamp to the other’s shadow, each the shadow to the other’s lamp. Suddenly, we see how symbiotic they are: the surface story and the one beneath.[Supra-text:]
When I was younger, I began
every story with “Once” as a way of signaling
the singular arrangement of our time.
[Nota bene: She began this whole collection with Once.]
But in fact, it always happens more than once.[Sub-text:]i
“Once” is also recitation. The story that would not be forgotten. In the theory of push and pull, the disproportionate histories of political and economic intervention make it impossible for two countries to live their lives in singularity. The intimacy of such contact coalescing into a force. When people of one nation are propelled towards the other. A migratory impulse. A movement that happens more than once.
Leung observes the academic convention where footnotes are printed in smaller font than the body-text to which they are subtended. But there’s a paradox here, too, since this isn’t an academic text. The body-text in the big print frequently denotes the personal body, the singular “I,” the unique experience/consciousness of our speaker. And the tiny print at the bottom of the page frequently denotes events on a large scale—history, geography, global relations, cancer.
Hierarchies break down. Hierarchies flip. And this formal instantiation is also reflected in the content: “upon dispersal, the bodies proliferated in every direction,” including the body of this text. Words like protean and rhizomatic spring to mind, as do phrases like extensive image system and elaborate root structure.
Watch how Leung closes this section, where the individual and the collective, the supra- and the sub-, have been continually swirled, meshed, and juxtaposed: “And this: the lone cancerous cell glows the way the busiest terminal of a city fills with people in the hour of its utmost vitality.” The individual and the crowd might prove as false a binary as anything else, even that [perforated] line sketched between poetry and prose.
In Section 3, Leung’s ampersands arrive. Not a coincidence, I think, but a logogrammatic suture for binaries the collection has already begun to dispute: self/other, small/large, healthy/diseased, past/present/future:
I sang it deep into my bones
crowed for you
Of course, where there is more than one “you,” there must be more than one “I,” too. [Earlier, Leung wrote: “the plural of me,” foreshadowing?] And sometimes the “you” and the “I” are one and the same.
In this third section, which is also the “future” our speaker has written toward—even as the book is an object made in the past and read in the present—some absent language materializes. At last, the speaker can name one valence her initial brackets evoked: “the isolation of grief in a great alone.”
Not all binaries can be sutured. Some come undone, cannot be ampersanded together: “But my queerest self, buckling against the frame, is something other.” Also: “Even locked within the room, I poured out of it.” Other, uncontainable.
The way this section refuses a singular style. The way this speaker refuses a singular self.
In Section 4, Leung introduces a triptych of ellipses, stacked in the center of the page in a 3 x 3 arrangement. Are they a miniature perforation? An emphatic to be continued? A series of “S”es in Morse code? [Earlier, Leung wrote: “how my ghost becomes a hiss,” foreshadowing?]
I start to think of them as ladders, that I could climb back and forth between the text at the top of the page and the text at the bottom. The middle is so capacious now.
On the first page of this section, Leung writes: “Though I lived, the snow grew inside me in the years to come.” So much white space, exceeding in surface area the dark print. Of course: the snow!
More binaries melting: “What my preoccupations with dying have taught me is that my body is of me and also not.” And: “Your body is not yours.” And: “Despite water’s propensity toward movement—the unstable nature of its parts—it recalls every drowning.”
There are more explicit questions in this section than ever before: “What does it mean…” “How do you know…” Suddenly, like melted patches newly visible in the snow, there are allegories, too: “Once, when I was a jar, I invited a stranger home to rattle me. He shook and he shook. He saw that inside the jar was a city within water and the lights were bare.” Is allegory not a [potent] way of pluralizing the singular story?
“A thread courses through a body filled with stones, so heavy with the currents of that missing life.”
Maybe the dots also represent stones.
In Section 5, there’s a new landscape. The snow has melted. The groundcover is porous columns, enjambed lines dotted with caesuras. [Earlier, Leung wrote: “The porous matter of one’s racial suffering.” Earlier, Leung wrote: “Grief pours through me like a sieve.” Here is the sieve.]
First line: Of which I make grooves in my
Now we can see the grooves as they are, how akin to pores they are. This is the shortest section, perhaps the most pivotal. The language addresses the past of the book from a new vantage: “For love of [theory], I read for what / the world concealed and found / myself in it.”
The reader has watched an individual emerge from the masses, her story superimposed upon the enormous public screen: migration of the family, assimilation of the family, illness in the family, death in the family. A self persisting in spite of/because of/in relation to: “If there was any skill / I acquired, it would be that—to / locate the body even when told / it does not exist.
In Section 6, another shift in form, as we have been promised by precedent. The field of composition becomes analogic this time, with the appearance of double colons. I was taught in school the double colons mean this is to this as that is to that. The colons doubled as the “as.” The colons doubled to show how something moved or progressed akin to the way something else moved or progressed: “within the writing / of what it means to be a body:: tired of being a body.”
In other words, this making that we have been watching takes its toll on the maker, who is willing to acknowledge that toll in words. Which is to say: Writing the body using the physical body exhausts the physical body, depletes the maker’s capacity to relish embodiment.
The predicament now named, how does the exhausted body continue writing of and from itself? Here, in the penultimate section, Leung presents “twinned bodies—the pink meat of my abuser, my own slotted hide.” How to write the trauma of abuse? How to confront that perforation of body? Embody someone else.
Near the end of the book, Leung makes a daring and engaging pivot to cine-ekphrasis. She introduces Geum-Ja, the character of “Lady Vengeance” from the 2005 South Korean psychological thriller of the same name. Our speaker has found her mythic proxy, vicarious avenger: “When Geum-Ja dreams of the man who shuttered her life away, / she pictures hauling him through a field in a wooden sled […] In fantasies, revenge can have this pastoral grace. His trembling animal. Her delight in his trembling.”
Leung inhabits Geum-Ja’s story, which is to say her body, so she can ultimately re-inhabit her own story, which is to say her own body. [Earlier, Leung wrote: “I try to astral project my way out of it.” And here, at last, she does—cinekphrastically.] “Like everything else, the film also ends.” Leung’s speaker relinquishes the other woman’s story and resolves: “I can go on. I have this gift of time. From the caverns of a war, I wait.”
In Section 7, the recurring word is “Suppose,” an invocation of the subjunctive.
The language here resembles a poem arranged in stanzas. There are still occasional caesuras, but much of the space has closed up, crystallized.
Leung’s speaker is able to see now, in a clearer retrospect, how “the violence glows / translucent as a cellophane bark.” It predates “the pink meat of [her] abuser.” She can see now, “My grandfather made his fists sing / into my father’s face,” abuse as another kind of heritage, another kind of cancer.
Now the reckoning comes hard and tight and necessary. Now the reckoning comes sharp and wise and earned: “If my father is not a ghost and my mother is not a ghost, / then I too—a maker, a shapeshifter. […] There is no recourse for the things we have done to one another/ when we were hurting. I suppose myself into a whorl.”
We have seen the future come to fruition—we have seen the future written toward—in this volume. So we believe this speaker when she proclaims, “The ghost of my future visits my past and tells her, You have to be brave. / I could fortify my life this way.” This book is that fortification—immense, intricate, unforgettable.